Russia’s opposition held its largest protest in years in central Moscow in a show of strength and defiance after previous rallies were forcefully dispersed with mass arrests.
Monitors from the White Counter group, an NGO that counts participants at rallies, reported that nearly 50,000 people attended the demonstration on Saturday, making it the largest opposition rally since 2013.
By 7pm, police had made more than 100 arrests, many coming after a group of protesters left the larger, sanctioned demonstration and walked toward Russia’s presidential administration building. OVD-Info, a monitoring body, later reported that 229 people were arrested at Saturday’s demonstration in Moscow and 81 at another demonstration in St Petersburg.
Riot police in balaclavas wielding nightsticks picked demonstrators out of the crowd and dragged them to nearby police vans, marking the third successive week of protesting in Russia’s capital marked by mass arrests. Military vans carrying troops in body armour were also seen in downtown Moscow.
As mass arrests began, some protesters unsuccessfully sought refuge in an upscale hotel. One protester in the process of being detained said: “The demonstration ended and we came here to walk. Now they’re just picking people and detaining them.”
Police also detained opposition leaders and raided a media studio tied to anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.
Earlier, chanting “dopuskai!” or “let them through”, members of Russia’s opposition had called for independent candidates to be allowed to appear in Moscow’s municipal elections.
Shortly before the demonstration, police officers wearing masks detained Lyubov Sobol, an opposition activist who has declared a hunger strike over her disqualification from the elections. The police said she was planning a “provocation” at the rally.
The rally had been permitted to go ahead by the city government, even though some speakers called for a march on the presidential administration building.
Monitors allied with the opposition said they counted 49,900 people at the protest at 4pm Moscow time, although police estimated the crowd at 20,000.
Municipal election fraud is an unlikely cause célèbre in Russia, and several months ago few expected the elections to attract widespread attention. But the disqualification of independent candidates and then thousands of arrests at unsanctioned rallies in the past two weeks served to bolster attendance at Saturday’s event.
“Everyone has his own reason to be here,” said Maria Ostozheva, 53, standing in a plastic poncho on a cold and rainy summer afternoon. “The elections are just part of it. Nothing is changing. We need change.”
Many attendees held signs saying “I have a right to a choice” or photographs of those charged with inciting protests in the past two weeks. Russian police have cracked down on the protesters more forcefully than usual, opening criminal cases, checking debt and military service records, and even initiating a process to take an infant son from her protesting parents. The case was later dropped.
“It’s a police state,” said a young protester who gave his name as Mikhail. “My parents know I am here today. They support me. And I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t protest.”
The protest was attended by a number of prominent musicians, including the rappers Face and Oxxxymiron, the popular video blogger Yury Dud and others with mainstream appeal among younger Russians.
“I honestly don’t get politics,” said Face, whose real name is Ivan Dryomin. “But I believe that freedom is life. And I hope that we’ll have it one day.”
Russia’s protesters have grown younger in recent years, with high school and college students who grew up under president Vladimir Putin more vocal in their calls for change.